You get the career you want in the industry after following your heart. What then? Is there a happy ever after? And what if the path is simply not so straight, or it didn’t pan out the way you thought it would?

Let’s say you are one of Simon Sinek’s millennials “thrust into the real world and in an instant they find out that they are not special.” Perhaps you can relate to a feeling of disappointment on learning that the world wasn’t your oyster after all? And on top of that, you are a woman. If you’re like me, apart from being told that coding was “for the boys”, the reality of sexism didn’t register until mid-twenties in what is referred to as the “18-30 realisation,” which is not, incidentally, anything to do with foam parties in Ibiza!

With only 26% of FTSE 100 companies having more than one woman on their board of directors and the average salary for women standing at 18% less than men, (Guardian) it seems we all still have to fight for equality.

Her Invitation’s Gina Churchill on being a woman in today’s workplace

Gina Churchill rose through the ranks in the male-dominated world of construction and now makes a living as a coach and mentor, having founded Sirius Business to devise “strategies for women to move to the next level professionally, and also to take the rewards that go with that.” She is also one of the longest standing facilitators for Her Invitation, an organisation that seeks to offer women the tools they need to empower themselves at work and in life, delivering workshops.

“Women will give away their power without even realising it, they will forgo opportunities, they will stop talking when their opinion matters most, they will keep the peace rather than rock the boat, they will say yes when they’re screaming no inside, they will (at some point) lose their identity in becoming wives, mothers, daughters.” (Source: Her Invitation website)

Bridging the divide

The most obvious example cited for the different treatment of men and women in the workplace is the gender pay gap. This comes as no shock when even Google has been questioned over its alleged unequal payment of female employees.

But is it all about pay? If tomorrow a law came in to equalise pay, would this gender bias go away? Gina says:

Equal pay would almost be the easy part – as has been legislation. It’s now perfectly legal for a man to take the parental leave and the mother to go back to work. Not many pockets of society would think this is okay in reality though. Gender bias is so deep rooted in the workplace and at home.

Gina blames the media in part for the messaging it is feeding society, especially those most susceptible:

It’s going to take generations for gender equality to be so normal that we don’t have to talk about it anymore. Media plays an enormous part in almost brainwashing our minds with images of what men and what women should be like and our children pick up all this stuff as well. We grow up believing the bias and we don’t grow out of it.

First steps in the man’s world

Hailing from the West Midlands, Gina was one of four children who were all “very much encouraged into university life.” Being a family of “doers” it is not surprising to her that she and her sister ended up “the main breadwinners” in their respective families.

Gina’s career path was far from mapped out. She shied away from pursuing English, her favourite subject at A-level after receiving discouraging career advice, an event which, she claims “completely changes directions in people’s lives.”
Profile image of Gina Churchill

After graduating with a degree in European Business Studies from the University of Northampton, Gina’s work history included banking, restaurant management and events until eventually, aged 29, an auspicious job role as a temporary PA put her in the path of her mentor, a director within the company. This mentor led her down her chosen field in facilities management in the construction industry.

On the role of mentors, she stresses,

There are people in your lives that sponsor you to help you progress, and I often talk about the power of having positive role models and people that I look up to. They are not always women!

Playing the role of ‘office mother’

After joining a workplace “special interest group”, Gina was present when Lynette Allen, founder of Her Invitation, came into the organisation to deliver a talk. She delivered a great speech which inspired Gina and everybody was nodding furiously in agreement about how as women we often ‘keeping ourselves small’ and take the notes in meetings. These are things that Gina refers to as “office housework,” i.e. the small jobs people do to look after the rest of the office staff. These are just some of the ways women “give away their power” or are silenced.

The worrying thing is that these aren’t shy women who have nothing to contribute. Why do women hold back? Like many problems, this stems from our upbringing, what is known in Her Invitation as “Little Girl Syndrome.”

Good little girls quite often get told to be quiet and not show off and not make a fuss and that kind of thing. We carry on doing that in adulthood…

The workshops presented by Gina and the rest of the team see instant results in boosting women’s power levels. This is attributed to awareness. Females will feel a sense of inadequacy or powerlessness in everyday life, but may not know why until they meet other women in the same predicament.

On not being one of the boys…

Gina’s view is that power is a “quiet, calm power over yourself and your choices within the world.

We don’t need to shout or try to rule other people.  Unfortunately, [people like] Thatcher and May are living in a very male world and they feel the need to do it “like the men.” I don’t necessarily believe that is a great role model for our future generations, and I certainly don’t believe we need to be hard-faced.

What is the employer’s role in empowering women?

Gina believes help towards empowerment derives from organisation’s culture: “Sexism and other discrimination happens every day without people being aware they are doing it; there is a term “everyday sexism” which is enormous in male-dominated industries because it was traditionally a male place, so those kind of behaviours existed – just small comments or even thought processes. Unconscious bias training is a good place to start because it makes people realise their thoughts and where they come from.”

Top companies for women to work in tend to offer things like free crèche, paid maternity leave, meaningful part time work after maternity. I don’t think this is far enough. Until it is OK for a man to have on-site childcare, paid paternity leave, meaningful part time work because he is a parent then the balance isn’t there for me. It’s a good start though!

Ultimately, what is it that women need most to succeed in your view?

Confidence – Self-confidence. They’ve generally got the skills. They just need the confidence to find their voice.

This reminds me of something my mother always says: “If you could bottle confidence and sell it, you’d make a fortune.” Therefore, we need a fairer distribution of it in the workplace I’d say.

Written by Kirsten Hawkins

If you are wondering how to gain that internal, calm power to not feel silenced anymore and start growing your confidence, Her Invitation hosts ‘Increase your Power & Influence’ workshops throughout the year and in various locations.